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Stanford scholar explores humans’ complicated history with Earth’s mineral riches in new book

With the support of a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, Gabrielle Hecht will research and write a new book about the mineral riches humans have turned the world inside out to unearth.

Gabrielle Hecht sees the world differently from most of us.

Grabrielle Hecht headshot

Gabrielle Hecht (Image credit: Courtesy Gabrielle Hecht)

The Stanton Foundation Professor in Nuclear Security, she reviewed the standard story of nuclear weapons – that they divide the world into haves and have-nots, countries with and without the bomb – and rejected the dichotomy.

In her award-winning book Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade, Hecht expanded the definition of nuclear places to include both the most powerful countries on Earth – those with nuclear warheads – and the least powerful – those where people mine the uranium that make nuclear warheads possible. Hecht peered into the Earth to understand mining and came away with a view of the planet in its entirety. We are, she realized, turning our world inside out.

“Mining conglomerates descend kilometers underground to extract metals that power electronics, making mountains of unwanted rocks,” said Hecht, who is also a senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation, at a recent talk at University College London. “Dredgers scoop sand from seabeds to terraform military bases and luxury islands. Offshore oil erupts, leaks, flows, combusts. All that was buried melts into air, seeps into waterways, settles on soils and penetrates bodies.”

That innovative approach has resulted in Hecht being awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Fellowship to write a new book, Inside-Out Earth: Residual Governance Under Extreme Condition.

Inside-out Earth

The book will draw in part from a course Hecht teaches about the colonial dimensions of nuclear weapons and shows how close we live to events that only seem long ago and far away. The course, Racial Justice in the Nuclear Age, takes students to San Francisco to explore a neighborhood on the Bay.

“We go to the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard,” she said, “where ships were brought for decontamination after the Marshall Islands nuclear tests in the 1950s, when nuclear decontamination meant sandblasting them and spraying the contamination all over into the adjacent waterways.”

In Inside-Out Earth, Hunters Point stories will illustrate how uranium from South Africa travels the world, threatening the health of communities and ecosystems. When Hecht begins her NEH-funded fellowship, she will also research gold from South Africa and travel to other countries that produce coal, lithium and oil.

Svalbard, Norway, for instance, is likely the first stop. An archipelago with fewer than 5,000 people, Svalbard sits north of the Arctic Circle and hosted Soviet, American and Norwegian coal mines in the 20th century. The largest town on the islands, Longyearbyen, is also the closest of any town on Earth to the North Pole. As glaciers melt, that trip becomes easier for travelers – American, Canadian or Russian – interested in resources found there.

“Climate change, fueled in significant measure by centuries of coal burning, has led to sea-level rise that is now flooding these coal mines. So the irony is deep and long and historical and complicated,” said Hecht, who is also a professor of history in the School of Humanities and Sciences.

In Chile, she’ll look at lithium, a soft, silvery metal that winds its way from mines in the Atacama Desert into batteries that power mobile phones, laptops and electric vehicles. Hecht also will apply a new lens to examine oil through the haze of urban pollution in West African cities of Dakar in Senegal and Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire.

“The story of pollution in Dakar and Abidjan hasn’t been told outside of these cities and I think it’s incredibly important to tell,” she said.

A global outlook

Hecht grew up in Puerto Rico and France. Her Swiss-born father worked for a Canadian bank, and her mother grew up in the Dominican Republic. This combination of cultures helped Hecht examine the world, even from an early age, through an international and inclusive lens.

As an undergrad at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she studied physics with a minor in creative writing. At MIT, she developed an interest in the politics of technology, and after graduation went on to earn a PhD in history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania. She came to Stanford as an assistant professor of history and stayed five years before joining the Department of History at the University of Michigan.

In Ann Arbor, Hecht co-developed a course titled Trashed! A History of Garbage in the Modern World, which allowed her to think deeply about things we don’t want or can no longer use.

A skilled writer, Hecht combines words and phrases as a novelist might, drawing three-dimensional characters and scenes with carefully selected details. But she doesn’t use literary techniques to build a fictional world. Instead, she helps readers see uncomfortable truths about this one.

“We live under this fantasy, the capitalist fantasy of endless growth,” she said. “The need is for profit to increase forever, and how can profit increase forever? It requires endless growth, and endless growth requires endless industrial activity. The planet is going to run out. Maybe not in your lifetime. Maybe not in my lifetime. But it is going to run out. There will come a point – and it’s not very far away – when our current system is going to collapse.”

The Anthropocene

Geologists who study the planet’s history divide chunks of time into epochs. Many scholars have started to call the modern era the Anthropocene, because the scale of human impact is similar to earlier epochs when glaciers permanently altered Earth’s surface.

When Hecht returned to Stanford in 2017, she focused her research on the Anthropocene and the costs of humankind’s planet-altering activity. She considers the price we pay for the mining, dredging and drilling for precious metals and valuable materials. Her work shows that people who pay the price are rarely the ones who reap the benefits of turning our world inside out. And the mismatch of costs and benefits, she argues, undermines safety and security.

“Typically, nuclear security is thought of as national security,” she said, “and doesn’t pay any attention to the insecurities generated for communities that live with things we pull from the Earth, whether that’s uranium miners in Africa or in the Navajo Nation, historically home to much of the uranium mining in the United States, and which is still struggling with contaminated water, contaminated buildings, contaminated everything.”

In Being Nuclear, Hecht expanded the concept of what makes a nation safe by increasing the pool of people whose safety matters. She thinks a lot about inclusion, both globally and locally.

“Last summer, after the horrific killing of George Floyd, when the country was focused on racial injustice, we knew that we needed to examine our own efforts and commitment to diversity and social justice,” said Michael McFaul, director of Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

“I started the Racial, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, or REDI, Task Force, and asked Gabrielle to serve as chair,” McFaul said, “I knew she was a leader on these issues and would do everything in her power to ensure that FSI does better in the battle against race-based injustices.”

Media Contacts

Jody Berger, Center for International Security and Cooperation: jlberger@stanford.edu